Rob Ashton is a writer who focuses on the science of how the things we read and write influence what we think and do. Rob founded the global learning company Emphasis, and over the last six years, he’s focused on researching the science of reading and writing, ranging from cognitive and social neuroscience to behavioral and neuroeconomics. In this conversation, we discuss how science can make us more effective readers and writers.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Rob, welcome to the show.

Rob: Hi Jorge! It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you on the show. Some folks tuning in might not know who you are. Would you please tell us about yourself?

About Rob

Rob: Sure. I tell people I’m a science writer, which is true. But I’m a science writer who’s pretty focused on one thing, and that’s the science of written communication. It’s something that’s become something of an obsession over the last six years.

I started off as a molecular biology researcher way back in the middle ages, focusing then on helping to develop the first test for HIV. So, very different from what I do now. And moved from there into publishing. Always had an interest in the written word, and set up a consulting firm specializing in written communication. And did that for 24 years, and that firm’s still going. I still have an interest in it, but I’m a full-time writer now. And so, it seemed natural to focus on the science of written communication. So, that’s what I do.

I try to delve into the huge body of knowledge that’s out there on how we read, how we write, how our brain reacts to what we read and write, and to share that with the wider world. Because there really isn’t that much of that going on. Most of the advice that you see on the web or on social media is based on, it seems to me, little more than hearsay or wishful thinking — or, much worse, pseudoscience.

There’s an awful lot of pseudoscience. You will have seen them: “Avoid these eight words if you don’t want to undermine your credibility,” that kind of thing. “These are the words that make you sound stupid.” Most of that is nonsense, and there’s a lot worse than that, so really, I spend all of my time now trying to sort the fact from the fiction and to look at peer-reviewed research and then share that with the wider world in a way that hopefully is accessible and interesting.

Jorge: Well, that’s very exciting to me as somebody who is currently writing a book. And it also sounds very meta: you’re a science writer who writes about the science of how we read and write.

Rob: Yeah. I make a rod for my own back as well because — and this has been the case since I moved into this area 24 years ago — as soon as you say you are focusing on written communication and how to do it well, it means every email you write, every report, every proposal, especially every article, every blog post, you just raised the standard to a really, really high level and raised the bar, I should say, and set yourself a very high standard, you know? Something to live up to. That can kind of induce terminal writer’s block.

I have to say; it is really meta. It took me a long time to get over that, if I’m honest, and to just say, “You know what? If I write something and people find fault with it, that’s great! I will take the feedback, and I won’t let it destroy me and stop me writing anything else.” You know? It is very meta, yeah, absolutely.

Do people still read?

Jorge: I remember hearing many years ago, a presentation — maybe it was some kind of question-and-answer session with Steve Jobs, who made this quip about people not reading books anymore. And I’ve seen research that suggests that a high percentage of adults — at least here in the United States — do not read more than one book, or not even one book a year. And yet, so much of our communication happens in written form. And I’m wondering, why do we need to understand the science behind writing? Is reading and writing a big way of communicating these days, or are people doing more of what we’re doing now, communicating over things like Zoom?

Rob: It’s a crucial distinction that you’ve made there because, yes, a lot of people don’t read what we might think of as doing so in a traditional way. A lot of people don’t read books, although we read in different ways. Now, of course, we have access not just to hard copies but to ebooks. But for sure, I think it’s really important not to get focused on what we traditionally think of as reading because that is a subset. That’s definitely something that we do, and I’d say certainly fewer than what we used to. But while that’s been happening, reading and writing have become really the default mode of communication.

If you look at the number of text messages that are sent now and look at the growth of that over the last few years, you look at messaging apps, you look at Instagram messaging — which platform you prefer seems to be governed by your age demographic. So, certainly, people of my son’s age, my daughter’s age, would use Instagram. But they would use it primarily for — in their case — for messaging. But that’s writing! And then, if you look at email, email isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In 2021, we sent and received 319 billion emails every day, and that’s been rising. And it’s still rising at 15 to 20 billion per day, per year.

So, what’s happened is we are using writing to communicate, but we’re not thinking of it as writing. It’s like the hidden medium, you know? It’s something that’s there, hidden in plain sight. We don’t think of it as reading when we’re looking at a text message. We even say, “I’m looking at a text message.” We don’t say, “I’m writing an email.” So, “I’m sending you an email. I’ll send you a message,” you know? We forget that what we are doing is reading and writing.

And Zoom is obviously and literally more visible. And if you look at the rise of Zoom — the stratospheric rise of Zoom in 2020 — because before that, it was very much a niche tool that a handful of coaches maybe used, you know? Nobody had heard of it outside of a very small group. And then suddenly, we adopted it into our common lexicon, and everybody had heard of it. And so, it was pure focus bias.

Because when you look at the stats, what actually happened was… if you looked at the workplace in 2020, we spent less time overall in Zoom meetings than we used to spend in face-to-face meetings before then, when we were just in the office. We had more meetings for sure, but they were shorter. And what was happening in between the meetings? It’s not really that people were calling each other. They were messaging each other; they were emailing each other.

So, this has become the default mode of communication for most of us in the West and certainly among knowledge workers. But outside of that, outside of the professional sphere, if my phone rings, I assume something is wrong. And we stay using written media much longer than we should. You know, our screens draw us in. We forget that we are writing. We forget that we can stop. And crucially, we forget that we can actually speak to the person — usually — on the other end of the conversation. And we may even find ourselves in text-based arguments that last hours when we could solve the problem — usually — if we just took that device from being in front of us and just raised it to our ear and used it for speaking instead of writing.

So, this is something that matters. And we can dig into that because of the way that the way we read and the way we understand what we’re reading. But it matters also because we are putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage when we stick to that. And when we take it for granted, when it’s not talking. You know, you even find that if you want to contact, say, a customer service desk, you can’t do that. You can’t speak to somebody. You have this live chat function, usually or often.

But even that name is a misnomer. It’s not chat; it’s not chatting. We think we are chatting. We are not. We are reading and writing. And it’s a very long, drawn-out process often. And we are continually and perpetually at risk of misunderstanding each other when we insist on relying on the written word. And we need to understand what’s going on more in the brain when we are reading and writing because we are doing an awful lot these days and far, far, far more than we have ever done before.

So it’s not that writing has died out. It’s the opposite: we’ve become reliant on it. We just don’t realize; we think we’re speaking when we’re not.

Writing for short- vs. long-form media

Jorge: I’m wondering if there’s a difference between communicating through — I don’t know if to call them like short-form writing media, such as Slack or email, versus something like writing a book, where it’s a much longer process [that] is not happening close to real-time. It’ll likely be many, many months between the time that you start writing the book and the time that it comes to market. So are they different, writing for short-form versus long-form?

Rob: In many respects, yes. The effects that the words you write — you know, how those words are processed by your audience — may differ slightly. For a start, if somebody is reading a book, they’ve usually chosen to read the book. We don’t really choose to read our email, you know? It’s not a conscious choice often to read our emails and text messages; it’s often something we do as a distraction or a misguided attempt to get some kind of relief from boredom, for instance. And that, in itself, can lead to problems.

When it’s a book, you are usually making a conscious effort to do it. Although how the words are processed at its core is the same. And a book, of course, is easy to put down. In fact, a book is probably easier to put down than your phone with text messages. In fact, I’d say certainly easier to put down than your phone. But the difference, I think, when you’re writing a book is that you have time to revise it. You have time to reflect on what you’ve written and to change it.

Whereas when we’re using, say, instant messaging, and often usually with email, we don’t tend to reflect before sending it. We think we are in a real-time conversation, and we live on a screen. The screen becomes a virtual world and really an extension of our minds, and we forget that there is somebody at the other end who is living in their world, not ours. With any kind of text-based, asynchronous — quasi-synchronous communication — it’s asynchronous in that you’re not speaking directly; you’re not able to correct something you say. “Oh, actually, no, I didn’t really mean it that way,” you know?

Especially if you’re face to face, you can see if somebody has misunderstood what you’re saying or is perhaps going to react to something in a way that you don’t want them to react, and you can correct it. You can course-correct; you can change it. You can change it mid-sentence. When you send an email, when you send a text message, you don’t have that opportunity. And also, it’s far more difficult to control the impulse just to reply.

If you’re reading a book or you are writing a book, it’s one-way, right? By the time the reader reads it, you are long done with it. Whereas with an email or with a text message or a Slack message, you write it, you send it. Gone! You know? And then, you have to deal with the consequences and what you wrote is there on their screen. You can’t clarify… well, you can try and clarify it, but when you see the typing indicator that they’re replying, you don’t know what they’re going to say. And that in itself can cause some anxiety. You sit there waiting for a reply.

And that, to me, in a long exchange, is nuts! We sit there waiting for this response. And we can have these long exchanges and, you know, “no, actually, no. I didn’t mean that. What about this aspect?” Just get on the phone and speak to each other. You know, you could resolve it a lot more quickly and be far less liable to be misunderstood.

Jorge: You’ve brought up the word “misunderstanding” a couple of times. And it seems to me that that is the factor that one would want to reduce in communication, right? So, you want the idea that you’re trying to get across to be the idea that is perceived by your interlocutor. And to your point, it seems like they are indeed different long-form versus the short-form, quasi-synchronous ways of writing. Can you give us an example of insights derived from scientific research that would help us reduce misunderstandings — perhaps on the writing side, which is where I think you have the greatest degree of agency?

Our brains fill in the blanks

Rob: Absolutely. I think the biggest thing to realize — the most useful thing to realize — is that we don’t read. We don’t see what’s there. We see what we think is there. We see what we expect to be there. So if you look at the anatomy that we’re using — so looking at the structure of the eye — and then if you then look at how the brain processes the information you’re taking in, it’s 90% expectation.

We tend to think of the eyes these days as maybe a couple of digital cameras that are taking in all of the information around us and relaying it to the brain. And then the brain in itself performs a minor miracle anyway. And it’s something that we take for granted that the brain is seeing dots and squiggles… or the eye are seeing dots and squiggles on a screen or on a page, and the brain is converting that into a voice in our head. And that in itself is a miracle of adaptation. A miracle of adaptation, not of evolution. And that’s a critical distinction. There are even neuroscientists who don’t appreciate that. We have not been reading and writing for long enough to have evolved structures that are dedicated to this task.

The earliest known examples of writing are from Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — around 5,000 years ago. And writing didn’t really take off until long after that. So writing evolved in several places around the world. That’s the earliest known example, but even if everybody had been reading and writing for 5,000 years — which they haven’t — that sounds like a long time. But in evolutionary terms, it’s just a heartbeat. It’s not enough time for the brain to evolve major change. To evolve, in fact, the structures that we use for reading and writing.

So, I’m thinking of the visual cortex and the auditory parts of the brain, and the visual word-form area; these are all adaptations. What happens is we co-opt those structures, and we create a network between those and other parts of the brain — an extensive network — and create the ability to read. And that’s why it takes a long time to learn to read. It’s not true of understanding speech and reproducing speech. In fact, we do that naturally without any deliberate effort. We pick up our native language just by hearing other people speak.

And in fact, we even pick up the rules of grammar or most of the rules of grammar. You can hear this with kids when they make grammar mistakes when they might misconjugate an irregular verb. We may not think of it that way, but if you take the word tie and you say, “Okay, well, if I want to make the past tense to that, I can say ‘tied.’” And then you take the verb “to see,” and they say, “oh yeah! You hear a little kid say, ‘oh yeah, I see-d it!’” So, they’ve picked up that rule of grammar. And it’s more logical if you ‘think-d’ about it.

That’s kids picking up the natural rules of grammar without being told. And yet with reading and writing, that’s not the case. You know, we have to build this network, and it remains a very expensive skill and process in terms of cognitive energy. It’s always something that we use a lot of energy, and we don’t realize it. So under the hood, there’s this process going on that we take for granted, and we think, “you know what? I learned to read when I was four or five, and I don’t need to think about it now.” But it’s always going to be expensive. It’s always something that sometimes leaves you at the limits of your brain’s capacity, which is one reason — potentially — why we might be more inclined to lose our tempers when we’re reading an email or, particularly, in social media, which has been called the “amygdala of the internet.” It was Tali Sharot, the psychologist. And I think that’s true!

But when it comes to anatomy and how we process that, the eye is not a digital camera. The eye has a very, very small field of fine visual acuity. So there’s an area of the retina called the fovea you may be familiar with. And that’s absolutely packed with cone cells, which detect and process color and, particularly, fine detail. That is only big enough to focus on between four and 15 letters at a time. So, the next time you’re looking at an email or looking at a page in a book or on screen, just stop for a second in the middle of it and see how much is in sharp focus. And you’ll realize it really is only a few letters. And so what’s happening is… everything else is, you know, a few letters on either side of that is a blur. Beyond that, you’re not even seeing it.

And this has been shown in experiments. Go back to 1975: George McConkie and Keith Rayner performed a seminal experiment where they used software to create kind of a moving window. They used an eye tracker and made sure that wherever the eye was looking, the few letters there — where it were — they were there. But everywhere else was just filled with nonsense, with gibberish. And the people — the volunteers in the experiment — did not notice. They did not notice that everything else was gibberish. They thought it was normal. And that’s because we make it all up.

In the brain itself, the amounts of information going from the visual processing of the pressing areas of the brain, to the center of the brain, to the thalamus, you kind of crudely think of that as like a nerve junction box. You know, everything goes in through the thalamus in the middle. So the amount of information going from the visual cortex — not from the eyes — from the visual cortex to the thalamus, compared with the amount of information coming from the eyes to the thalamus, is a difference of ten to one. There is ten times as much information coming from the brain as is coming from the eyes when we look at things. And that’s because the structure of the eye is not capable of taking in all of the information that’s there.

So, when we’re reading, we are, for a start, focusing on very, very fine points. You know, very small chunks of text, and we’re kind of hopping along each sentence, is what the eye does. These jumps are called saccades. We’ve got this illusion of fluency and this kind of fluid movement. That’s not true. And we are looking at what’s there, but what the brain is doing is crosschecking. It’s called predictive coding and it’s crosschecking. It’s not seeing what’s there; it’s seeing if what’s there is different from what it expected to see.

And that’s why we often don’t spot our own mistakes. It’s why we miss our biggest typos. That, and the fact that you can write something in 30-point type, and it’s too big for you to see the word, for it to fit into that very, very narrow window I described. And we see what’s there. You know, our emotions color what we’re reading. You’re writing an instruction; you think it’s a really clear instruction. And then people don’t follow it, and you think, “Why did they not follow it? I made it really clear. I made it really simple!” Because they had a different voice in their head, and they were seeing what they expected to see, not what was really there.

Jorge: What you’re saying reminds me of a quote that I love from Anaïs Nin, who said — and I might mangle this — but the gist of it is: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” And I’m also reminded of this thing I learned a few years ago about the eye’s blind spot: this idea that at the very center of your field of view, in the back of the retina where the optical nerve comes into the eyeball, there’s an area where there are no cones — no receptors, right? I don’t know the science…

Rob: That’s absolutely right.

Jorge: Basically, our brain is filling in the blanks, right? This sounds to me like it’s a super important insight, this idea that what is there is only a part of what we understand when we see and when we read, and the rest is being filled in by our brain or by our nervous system, our bodies, more generally. I can imagine how that would affect how I approach reading. But I wonder how it might affect how I approach writing. Like, is there something that I can do as a writer to account for the fact that my readers are going to be kind of making up part of the story?

How to write for what readers see

Rob: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not easy, but to be effective in what you write, you have to try. And you have to try to really put yourself in your reader’s shoes. And the reason I say that it’s not easy is because when you are writing, it’s quite an egocentric process, you know? You are focused on your needs. You want to get a certain amount written in a certain time. You want to cross something off of your to-do list. And it’s all about you. And for the reader, it’s all about them. Not about you. They don’t care about you! They might, literally, if they thought about it, but at that moment they have their own problems. They have their own priorities.

And so, the way around that is you have to do something very deliberate. If possible, move away from your screen and go old-school. Get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and write down, “Who is it?” Who is it you want to read this? What are they interested in? Not just what they need. And that’s a crucial distinction because what we need and what we want or what we pay attention to are often very, very different things. Otherwise, there would be no obesity problem. You know, nobody would smoke. Those are wants, not needs.

And so, think: what is it they desire? What is it that they are interested in right now? You know, with respect to whatever you are writing about. And try to write it from that point of view. Try to start from that point and then think, “Well, what do they know about this?” It’s very, very easy to overestimate that, you know? If you think of the Dunning-Kruger effect — this illusory superiority that we tend to have if we don’t know very much about a topic — you know, that causes us to overestimate that we know much more than we really do.

Well, there’s a flip side to that, which is illusory inferiority where if we know a lot, we underestimate — we vastly underestimate — how much we know because by then, we know how much there is to know. And in doing that… we underestimate how much we know, but we overestimate how much everybody else knows. And so, you are writing to them, or you’re writing for them, and you will write it from the perspective — to a degree — of somebody who has as much knowledge as you do. Because you’ll think, “You know what? I know a bit about this.” You know a lot about it. A lot more than most people do. So you have to really think: how much do they know?

And that is particularly a problem because of another psychological phenomenon, which is the mere exposure effect — familiarity bias is another term for it — where we get to like the things that we see all the time. And that can include the information that we see. So, if we’re researching a particular topic, then, you know, we can find that a lot more interesting than somebody who isn’t doing that would find it. Not just because we’ve delved into that topic and we know more about it, and we know enough to find it interesting, but because we see it every day and it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everybody else finds that interesting.

I remember describing this to my daughter a few years ago and saying, “I’ve got this really…” you know? “I want to tell people about this particular aspect!” You know, I said what it was, and I said, “It’s really amazing. I’ve discovered this. And it’s really cool.” And she looked at me, and she said, “Yeah, Dad, I’m not sure everybody will find it that interesting. I think that’s just because you’ve really gone into that, and you know, it’s not going to be something that’s going to light up other people, you know? Maybe you should find something else.” And she was absolutely right!

We do this all the time when we have special interests when we spend all of our time surrounded by a particular style, for instance. If we happen to be reading academic texts all the time, then we absorb that style, and we get to like it, and we think that’s normal and that other people will be able to understand things that we’ve written if we use that style. So you have to think, “Where is that other person coming from? What do they normally read? What are they interested in? What do they want?” And write those things down. And then perhaps go away and just think about it and just mull that over. Walk around for a bit. Go take a break and just think, “Okay, so what is it that I’m writing that will resonate with them?”

You know, you have to separate the information and the research that you are discovering from the writing process. Otherwise, what you can often end up doing is regurgitating an awful lot of it. And you’re not communicating, really; you’re just research-dumping, and that doesn’t really help people. It’s an illusion. So you have to be very, very careful.

Jorge: What you’re suggesting here is doing the sort of research that designers engage in. It’s like, understand who is going to be interacting with the system that you’re designing and try to see the domain from their perspective. And it feels like you’re advocating for a similar approach here for writing.

Recipient design

Rob: Absolutely. It’s recipient design. You know, there are two aspects to design on the web, aren’t there? There’s what it looks like, and there’s the content; there’s the written content. And they go hand in hand. It’s very easy to focus on the structure and the design and to overlook the words you’re using, but they both have to be chosen and constructed from the user’s point of view. They’re equally important, in my opinion.

Jorge: And it sounds like it’s true, whether you are designing a piece of software that someone will interact with or whether you are writing an email, right? You’re going to write an email differently — something that you know your boss’s boss is going to read — versus the text message that you are going to send to your friends as you coordinate a night out in the town. Those are different readers; they have different purposes. And it sounds to me like the takeaway here is: know who your audience is, know who is going to be reading this and under what conditions, and then write accordingly.

Rob: Absolutely. And I think that the reason we don’t do that is that we take the writing bit for granted. Hopefully, we know we have to design the software from the user’s point of view, but when it comes to the writing, we forget that bit. And sometimes, it’s just an afterthought, but they are equally important. What do they have in common? Well, they’re both going to be read or used by human beings and interpreted by a human brain. And there are things that, when we’re reading anything, we are using, essentially, the same process, and it’s quite an energy-hungry process.

And it’s something that’s very open to misinterpretation, and we are seeing what we expect to see. So, that’s true whether you are writing for your boss’s boss or whether you are writing for your friend in a text message. But we’d still have to think about how they’re going to react to it and how they’re going to react to it as a piece of writing, not as speaking, and to really focus on the fact that you are not speaking, you are writing, and they are processing those words — those dots and squiggles — and converting them into that voice in their head.

And the best way to do that is to really, really think about the person at the other end. And that takes an enormous effort. You know, it’s a feat of mindfulness because when we are drawn into that, we’re tempted to respond, especially if we’re in an emotional state, which we often are when we’re reading these things.

That emotion, coincidentally, may have nothing to do with what you’re reading. I once, to my shame, responded to somebody after hitting my head on a beam in my garden office here. And I mean, even as I describe that, a shiver goes down my neck because it was, you know, I really, really… You know, I didn’t do any permanent damage, but I saw stars.

And then, I sat down, and I got an email from a conference organizer, and I completely misinterpreted it. I saw what I expected to see. I saw it as an imposition. I had very little emotional control and I fired off a response. And then half an hour later, after I’d calmed down, I read it, and I thought, “Oh my goodness. They didn’t mean that. That was a perfectly reasonable response.” And I shouldn’t have done that, you know?

I had to apologize, and they were fine. They were very gracious about it, but I did it because I was already upset. It’s another bias! It’s called the affect heuristic. You know, something has made you feel a certain way. Then you can look at something unrelated and think, “That confirms it!” You know? If you’re upset and then you read something, you’ll think that what you’re reading has made you upset.

So, yeah, it’s a bit of a minefield, but you have to be very, very mindful of what you are reading and of being in that state. It takes practice. The best way to do that is to just try to come up with hacks and rules of thumb that you follow when you’re responding, you know? A good one being: don’t email somebody when you’re under the influence of emotion, not just alcohol, you know? If you’re angry, don’t email somebody. And have that as a mantra.

Jorge: Wait till the next day, right? There are all sorts of techniques.

Rob: Yes. Shut your laptop.

Jorge: This feels to me like a great summary of the points you’ve been making here. And it also sounds to me like you have so much more to share from the science that informs how we read and write. I’m sure that folks listening in are going to want to follow up with you to find out more. Where can they see your work and get in touch with you?

Closing

Rob: The easiest way is just to go to my personal website, which is robashton.com. A S H T O N. I’ve created a free course based on the research. I’m working towards a book, but as I discover new things, I add to the course. And they can sign up for it there. It’s called Silent Influence. They can go straight to robashton.com/influence, or they can just follow the link from the main site. All roads lead to Rome. And likewise, they can find out a bit more about me there and get in touch if they would like to — and I’d love to hear from them!

Jorge: Fantastic, Rob. It has been such a pleasure talking with you today.

Rob: Thanks, Jorge. It’s been a great pleasure for me too. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Jorge: Thank you for being here.